Austerity Works
The road to recovery is not through increased government spending.


Michael Tanner

The third Baltic country, Lithuania, also dramatically cut government spending — as much as 30 percent in nominal terms — including reductions in public-sector wages of 20 to 30 percent and pension cuts of as much as 11 percent. Unfortunately, Lithuania may have undermined the effects of those cuts by also raising taxes, including a significant hike in corporate taxes. Still, Lithuania is expected to see its economy grow by 2.2 percent this year.

Krugman and others do have a point in saying that the Baltic countries benefit from strong trade opportunities with neighbors such as Sweden and Finland that have growing economies. And it is true that, while their recoveries have been strong, none of the Baltic countries is expected to fully return to pre-recession levels of prosperity until 2014 at the earliest. On the other hand, when are Greece, Spain, or for that matter the United States — none of which has done much if anything to reduce government spending — likely to return to pre-recession growth?

If the Baltics are not a sufficient example of the value of cutting government, we can look a bit to the west, to Switzerland. Switzerland’s constitution includes provisions that limit the country’s ability both to run debt (the growth in government spending can be no higher than average revenue growth, calculated over a multi-year period) and to increase taxes (taxes can be increased only by a double-majority referendum, meaning that a majority of voters in a majority of cantons would have to approve the increase).

As a result, total government spending in Switzerland at all levels of government is just 34 percent of GDP, compared to an average of 52 percent in the EU, and more than 41 percent in the United States. Switzerland’s national debt is just 41 percent of GDP and shrinking at a time when other European countries are becoming more insolvent. Switzerland’s economic growth has not yet returned to pre-recession levels, but it is better than the growth in, say, Greece or Spain. And its unemployment rate is just 3.1 percent, the lowest in Europe.

If that’s not enough evidence, we can just look to our own neighbor Canada. The Canadian federal government has been reducing spending in real terms since the 1990s. As a result, federal spending as a share of GDP has fallen from 22 percent in 1995 to just 15.9 percent today. Compare that to the United States, where the federal government spends 24 percent of GDP, roughly half again as much. And, while Canadian provincial governments spend appreciably more than do most U.S. states, total government spending at all levels in Canada has declined from 53 percent in the 1990s to just 42 percent today — still far too high, but clearly moving in the right direction.

Canada has also cut taxes. Corporate tax rates at the federal level were slashed from 29 percent in 2000 to 15 percent today, less than half the U.S. federal rate. Capital-gains taxes were also cut, as were, to a lesser degree, income taxes.

When Canada — led for so long by the ultra-liberal Pierre Trudeau — has smaller government and lower taxes than the U.S., something is seriously out of whack.

As a result of these changes, Canada’s national debt is now less than 34 percent of GDP. Its budget deficit this year will be just 3.5 percent of GDP, while ours will be 8.3 percent. Canada’s economy will grow at 2.6 percent this year — a modest rate but faster than ours — and its unemployment rate is 7.3 percent, again better than ours.

All these countries are following the successful examples set by other nations such as Chile, Ireland, and New Zealand in the 1980s and ’90s, and Slovakia from 2000 to 2003.

Of course, none of these examples is perfect, and cuts in government spending will not, by themselves, cure all ills. These countries often benefited from circumstances aside from fiscal discipline. Still, the evidence is there. Cutting government spending, reducing taxes, and liberalizing labor markets brings more economic growth, increased employment, less debt, and more prosperity. The opposite is also true: Bigger government and higher taxes result in more economic misery — see Greece, Spain, etc.

As the United States looks to its future, it is time to decide which path we will follow.

— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.